Saturday, September 20, 2008
'Lizard Man' Nurtured Reptiles And Made Discoveries Along the Way
BERT LANGERWERF 1944-2008
'Lizard Man' Nurtured Reptiles
And Made Discoveries Along the Way
By STEPHEN MILLER
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In hundreds of enclosures on his Alabama farm, Bert Langerwerf nurtured the beasts that earned him the moniker of "Lizard Man."
Mr. Langerwerf claimed that his Agama International Herpetocultural Institute Inc., named after a brilliantly colored sub-Saharan lizard, was the biggest lizard-breeding facility in the world.
"It's by far the biggest lizard-raising operation in the country," says Russ Gurley, director of the Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group.
[Bert Langerwerf] Agama International Herpetological Institute Inc.
A onetime physics teacher who was self-educated as a herpetologist, Mr. Langerwerf found that in many species, the sex of offspring is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated -- a discovery often cited in scientific journals.
He also discovered that most lizards need to be exposed to direct sunlight to metabolize calcium for their eggs. The institute sells about 2,000 lizards annually to pet owners, says Mr. Langerwerf's son, Timo.
Mr. Langerwerf, who died Aug. 11 at age 64, boasted that he bred well over 100 lizard species. Most of his business came from three: Australian water dragons, jeweled lacertas and Argentinian tegus, forbidding red-striped monsters that grow to four feet.
Feeding thousands of lizards took lots of food. Mr. Langerwerf and his wife, Hester, collected stale bread and past-ripe vegetables from grocery stores. A local chicken farmer donated dead fowl, and Mr. Langerwerf collected other waste food by dumpster diving. "Thanksgiving time in the dumpsters was amazing," says Mr. Gurley.
He raised unconventional animal feed, including rats, giant African cockroaches and super mealworms, giant squirmy beetle larvae he claimed to have introduced to the U.S. in the late 1980s. Triple the size of a conventional mealworm, they are now commonly used for feeding exotic pet species and were also featured as hors d'oeuvres on the television program "Fear Factor."
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Born in Holland, Mr. Langerwerf wrote of being ill-suited to schoolyard sports, preferring all his life to scout for bugs and lizards. He moved in 1988 to Alabama, saying the Southern climate was perfect for lizards. Nearly deaf in recent years, he was typically found caring for his lizards to the sounds of North African or other tribal music, blasting at top volume.
He urged owners to let the lizards be lizards.
"It's silly to give them names and play with them. You don't take aquarium fish out of the water to play, do you?" he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002. His affection shone through: "They're like a live painting, beautiful as flowers."
He is survived by his wife and two sons, and by a Moroccan land turtle Mr. Langerwerf adopted when he was a teenager.